Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On Obama, Roosevelt, and the Threat of Tribalism

It was a late night in the Schnauzer household as we all stayed up well past our normal bedtimes, yearning for another nugget of wisdom from Keith, Rachel, and the MSNBC crew.

Heck, even our cats, Baxter and Chloe, seemed to sense that something special was going on.

I guess we are bleary eyed today partly because we wanted to see history in the making. And the election of our nation's first African-American president seems particularly powerful when you watch it unfold from Birmingham, Alabama, the heart of our nation's struggle for equal opportunity and home to the splendid Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

We probably stayed up an extra hour or two because we just could not believe that Republicans had not managed to steal the election. I think we kept expecting someone to break in and say, "Whoops, looks like we called Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Colorado too early. And my God, look at McCain's late surge in California!"

Some commentators have compared the 2008 election to the election of 1932 that swept Franklin D. Roosevelt into office. I don't pretend to be an expert on Depression-era American history, but I would submit that Barack Obama might face an even stiffer challenge than the one Roosevelt encountered.

Certainly our current economic crisis has not reached Great Depression levels. But it's also likely to get worse before it gets better, and no one knows just how bad it might become.

Roosevelt inherited a relatively calm international scene, while Obama inherits two wars--one that was initiated in a boneheaded fashion by the United States and one that has been going badly for months.

Obama also must deal with critical issues such as climate change and renewable energy sources that had yet to be contemplated at Roosevelt's time.

For all of that, I would suggest that Obama's greatest challenge might come from what I call a peculiar form of American tribalism. We raised this issue in a post yesterday, and I think the subject is worth another look. (Hey, I like pretending to be a social scientist.)

Tribalism is defined as the "possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates oneself as a member of one group from members of another group." It's a phenomenon that can corrode a society and turn it into a quagmire.

Consider that we supposedly are trying to bring democracy to two countries--Iraq and Afghanistan--that have been dysfunctional for ages, largely because of tribalism. There is rich irony in that, of course. But there also is danger that I suspect many Americans do not sense.

I propose that tribalism began to rear its ugly head in America with the civil-rights legislation of the middle 1960s. Driven by race-based fears and resentments, a white, middle-class "tribe" began to pick up steam with Ronald Reagan's "states' rights" rhetoric in the 1980 presidential campaign.

That took the tribe and placed it firmly under the "conservative" banner. And even on the night of a major victory for Democrats, the power of tribalism could be seen on the electoral map.

Across a swath of the Deep South, and up through a chunk of the Midwest and Plains states, millions of white Americans voted against their economic and social interests and for a Republican candidate who had run one of the most dreadful and sophomoric campaigns in American history.

While I was pleased with Obama's "landslide" victory, I'm alarmed that the race was as close as it was. In fact, I remain amazed that McCain won a single state, other than perhaps Arizona.

In my view, McCain had disqualified himself on multiple levels, making yesterday's election essentially a one-man race.

So why did we have to wait till 10 o'clock central time last night to see the winner declared? My guess is that many Americans, perhaps subconsciously, have placed the values of the conservative "tribe" over the concepts that make us Americans--due process, equal protection of the law, justice for all.

In short, I fear that a tribal identity has come to trump an American identity in many hearts and minds.

We are asking a lot of Barack Obama as he inherits what one news organization termed a "staggering mess" from George W. Bush. Can we ask him to help us overcome our own worst instincts, the ones that cause us to separate into "tribes?"

What's one more problem to heap on Obama's table? Let's hope he can show us the way.


Anonymous said...

And still, no one speaks about the Native American---schnauzer, or no schnauzer in the White House.


Starkville Bible Student said...

Very interesting comments on tribalism. I live in Starkville MS, and while I myself appear to be a member of the tribe, I do not share many of their beliefs.

I think your hypothesis has a lot of merit. Many of the tribal members are Southern Baptist, as this is the state religion of the ex-Confederacy. Others sympathize with many SBC beliefs.

Deb Murphree/Alabama Politics said...

You are correct that Obama has plenty on his table when he is sworn in. I am happy for him that he was elected. He's an intelligent man, and although he will have an enormous workload to face, I have faith and confidence in him to do the right thing for ALL Americans.

Anonymous said...

Tribalism is an interesting concept. Unfortunately the "tribe" that has usurped power in the US is indeed a rogue splinter, THAT decided to be separate from its own species. Obama's new pick "Immanuel" is a honorary member of this rogue TRIBE. Hmmmm, food for thought perhaps?

Bonnie Prince Charlie said...

I hope Obama spends more than a little time in Appalachia and with conservative Christian leaders during the next four years. He really needs to bridge that gap.

Concerning Appalachia, check out this map. This represents the 22% of counties which voted more Republican in Tuesday's election. It's a lot of Appalachia. I really want to see some outreach in that area of the country by this administration.